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Historical reprint: The Russian defeat in Afghanistan


THE DECISION OF the Soviet bureaucracy, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan – agreed in March 1988 and completed by February 1989 - was a major turning point. It was a crossroads not only for Afghanistan, but for the former Soviet Union, which was on the edge of the rapid internal collapse which followed the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989. The Soviet withdrawal, moreover, was soon followed by the overthrow of the ‘Marxist’ regime of Najibullah, opening up the barbarous internecine war between the contending mujadeddin groups. This further period of civil war, which inflicted death, destruction and dispossession on large sections of the Afghan population, created the conditions for the rise of the Taliban and its assumption of power in 1996. The statement that we are here republishing, first published as an editorial in the 10 February 1989 issue of Militant (predecessor of our sister journal, The Socialist) provided, in our view, a prescient perspective that has very largely been born out by subsequent events.

The agreement between Moscow and imperialism, warned the editorial, would "usher in a period of civil war in which Afghanistan will be torn apart between rival warlords". It predicted an even bloodier phase of civil war: the rival militias were "incapable… of forming a government". "In the mujaheddin imperialism has created a monster". We also warned that, if Najibullah were overthrown, the regimes’ social gains, which were significant though limited and contradictory, would soon be reversed. This certainly proved to be the case. Though the Taliban was to go even further, the Islamic forces that contended for power under the shaky Kabul government of Burhanuddin Rabbani reversed land-reform measures, imposed the Sharia, Islamic law, and denied women education and access to the professions.

The course of events vindicated the position we took on both the Soviet occupation and the withdrawal of Soviet forces. When the Soviet bureaucracy sent in forces in December 1979 to prop up the floundering Karmal government, Militant unequivocally opposed the invasion. In our view, any advantage to the Afghan people derived from the defence of land reform and radical social changes would be more than outweighed internationally by the reaction to the Soviet invasion, the first direct intervention of Soviet forces outside the ‘Eastern Bloc’ since the aftermath of the second world war. US imperialism, of course, reacted ferociously, using the Soviet ‘aggression’ as the pretext for a new acceleration of its arms build-up. At the same time, politically conscious workers internationally reacted against moves to push through ‘socialist’ change from above, backed by military force, without a basis of mass support, and apparently without regard for local conditions and culture. Moreover, it was evident that the regime’s narrow base and the unremitting armed opposition that it faced was eroding the reforms that had been implemented after the Afghan Stalinist regime first came to power in 1978.

Even so, once Soviet forces had been sent in we did not call for their withdrawal. In our view, withdrawal would mean the inevitable collapse of the regime, the reversal of progressive social measures, and the plunging of the country into a barbarous civil war. The Islamic warlords were linked to reactionary social forces, to tribal leaders, landlords, merchants, black-marketeers and drug barons, whose interests would prevail under conditions of anarchic conflict. This proved to be all too true.

Gorbachev’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan was primarily motivated by a desire to reach an accommodation with US imperialism, though growing internal pressure was an important factor too. The Afghan war was proving to be a quagmire, an endless drain of resources, while mounting Soviet casualties were arousing growing discontent at home. Gorbachev, representative of the younger, technocratic wing of the Soviet bureaucracy, wanted a rapprochement with imperialism to allow himself space for his top-down attempt to reform the outmoded Stalinist apparatus. In reality, it was too late. Such was the depth and extent of the decay of the planned economy, brought about bureaucratic mismanagement and the corruption of the ruling elite, the ‘nomenklatura’, all attempts to modernise the system from within were doomed to failure. It was soon to become abundantly clear, with the fall of the Berlin wall, that the bureaucratic system of Stalinism could no longer assure even the most basic social progress - economic growth, full employment and elementary social protection - within the Soviet Union or the satellite states of Eastern Europe. Is it any wonder, in this light, that the Soviet leadership abandoned Najibullah (who replaced Babrak Karmal in 1986) to his gruesome fate?

Afghanistan was not, of course, the only case. Under Gorbachev, the Soviet bureaucracy signalled that it was no longer prepared to give massive economic and military support to the Stalinist-type bonapartist regimes that had been backed under Brezhnev in the 1970s, when the bureaucracy had been pushing to extend its international strategic power. In the 1980s it became clear that regimes in countries like Ethiopia and Angola, as well as Afghanistan, could not secure stability and economic growth – and could no longer rely on unconditional Soviet backing. The unmistakable message from the Soviet leadership that it was not prepared to give decisive material and strategic support to the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, despite the US’s unstinting support for the Contras, marked a decisive change in Moscow’s foreign policy.

At the beginning of 1989, however, it was not clear to us – or anybody else, for that matter – exactly how far the process of internal decay within the Stalinist states had gone. The editorial tentatively suggested, for instance, that one possible variant in Afghanistan could be a division of the country, with the Soviet Union backing a reduced Najibullah regime in the northern zone, if only to protect its own border. In the event, Moscow made no attempt to save even the last vestiges of its former client regime. Within months, the different elements of the Soviet ruling elite were themselves fighting to secure new sources of political power and scrambling to grab their share of the loot as the formerly state-directed economy fragmented. The return through a political counter-revolution to a barbarous, primitive capitalist economy in the former Soviet Union was the counterpart of Afghanistan’s descent into savage civil war and social regression.

US imperialism celebrated its great ‘victory over communism’, but immediately turned its back on Afghanistan, offering no resources for the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Washington viewed with indifference the conflict between the contending militias. With the demise of the Soviet Union, this remote country was no longer considered to be of any real strategic importance. Ironically, this was a return to the stance adopted by the US in the 1960s and 1970s, when its reluctance to provide economic aid led nationalist leaders like Mohammed Da’ud to look increasingly towards the Soviet Union for military and economic assistance.

Between the overthrow of Najibullah in 1992 and 1995-96, the rival warlords fought themselves to such a destructive impasse that they created a chaotic vacuum that facilitated the emergence of a new force, the Taliban, which was financed, armed and trained by the Pakistan military and the reactionary Saudi regime. Moreover, the anarchic state of the country, lacking an effective central government, made it an ideal base for non-state, Islamic armed groups drawn from a number of countries, including those of Osama bin-Laden and the al-Qa’ida network.


Afghanistan after the Russians

Reprinted from Militant, No.931, 10 February 1989

MUCH TO THE surprise of Western capitalist governments, all Russian forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan before 15 February. Gorbachev’s eagerness to meet the agreed deadline, however, is as one-sided as last year’s Geneva Accords. Under this UN-sponsored agreement between the USSR, the US, and Pakistan, both sides agreed to cease ‘interference’ and to phase out military support for the contending forces in Afghanistan. Although the Soviet Union has meticulously stuck to the letter of the pact, neither the US (through the CIA), nor Pakistan has ceased to finance and arm the mujaheddin.

As it became clear that the Russian forces would actually be out by the deadline, the Western powers, led by the US and fervently supported by Thatcher, have stepped up their efforts to destabilise the regime of president Najibullah. The withdrawal of all Western diplomatic missions, for example, was obviously a calculated attempt to help precipitate the collapse of the Kabul regime.

Exaggerated propaganda stories have always been a feature of reporting from Afghanistan, and this undoubtedly continues. Nevertheless, the picture of chaos and deepening collapse which emerges from television reports and from serious capitalist journals is too consistent to ignore.

Najibullah defiantly claims that he will fight the mujaheddin to the bitter end. He asserts that he will not step aside to make way for a compromise government. Rejecting claims that his regime is on the verge of collapse, he states that the Afghan army has been strengthened. Kabul, he asserts, will continue to be supplied, with Russian help. The mujaheddin, however, despite their internal rivalries, have stepped up the drive to put Kabul and other cities under siege, and to cut off Kabul’s lifeline, the Salang highway. Reports indicate shortages of bread and petrol. The city is swollen by over a million refugees. The severe hardship of sections of the population has been made even worse by an exceptionally cold winter. Some reports, undoubtedly hostile to the regime, claim that civil servants and Afghan army personnel are increasingly deserting their posts. Najibullah recently told journalists: "Sure, sure - I’m confident". The spokesmen of Western governments, however, are claiming his days are numbered.

Whichever way things go, there is no doubt that the situation has reached a critical point. The various mujaheddin groups, encouraged by the Russians’ exit, have stepped up their offensive. United in their opposition to the Najibullah regime, they are now intransigently opposed to the participation of the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), in any provisional assembly or transitional government. With the PDPA stripped of Russian military support, the mujaheddin see no reason for compromise.

Apart from this, however, the mujaheddin are totally divided. There are seven groups with leaders based in Pakistan, and eight groups with leaders in Iran. They represent different sections of Afghanistan’s old ruling strata, and have different reactionary paymasters and patrons abroad (though most of them take a share of US cash and arms). They are divided on local ethnic and tribal lines. Some are Sunni and others Shia, many of them extreme Islamic fundamentalists.

Rival groups have been fighting amongst themselves for control of areas and loot as much as against the regime. Until recently, some groups had a long truce with the Russian army. These ‘heroic resistance fighters’ are responsible for a large proportion of the one million dead. Many of the seven million Afghans now living as refugees were forced to flee from their home areas by the barbarous activities of the mujaheddin.

In the mujaheddin imperialism has created a monster. The leader of one faction, the ‘moderate’ Pakistan-based National Islamic Front, denounced its Shia rivals as "more savage than the Communists because they loot and kill under the cloak of Islam. If they take power, the bloodbath will continue for another ten years".

Now, with signs that the Kabul regime is in serious danger of losing control of key cities in the south and of strategic highway routes, the ‘resistance’ movement threatens the country with a violent and barbarous reaction. Far from guaranteeing peace and stability, the ‘accords’ between imperialism and the ruling bureaucracy of the USSR will usher in a period of civil war in which Afghanistan will be torn apart between rival warlords.

The Soviet invasion

HOW HAS THIS situation come about? Why, after invading over the Christmas of 1979, has the Russian leadership pulled out its forces so precipitately? What will be the fate of the regime and the fundamental (but distorted) social changes begun in 1978-79?

When the Russian bureaucracy invaded Afghanistan, Militant came out in opposition. Any gains achieved through defending measures to abolish landlordism and capitalism in Afghanistan, we argued, would be completely outweighed by the adverse effects on the consciousness of the working class internationally.

Nevertheless, once the Russian forces had gone in, we argued that it would be a mistake to call for their withdrawal. This would have meant, in effect, to support the mujaheddin – whose programme was to re-establish medieval reaction.

This analysis has been confirmed by events. The mistaken strategy of the Kremlin leadership, together with the bureaucratic methods used in Afghanistan, have resulted in the worst of all worlds.

When Brezhnev ordered the invasion of Afghanistan he did not expect the furious reaction which came from US imperialism and its allies. After all, even under the previous bourgeois bonapartist regime of Da’ud, Afghanistan had been within Russian’s sphere of influence. The coming to power of a proletarian bonapartist regime (one based on a nationalised, planned economy but presided over by a totalitarian elite) under Taraki in April 1978 evidently took the Kremlin by surprise. But when the new regime’s survival was threatened by its own internal discord and its autocratic measures to impose revolution from above, the Russian leadership felt impelled to move in to defend a client regime.

The bureaucracy had recently sent arms and economic aid to consolidate the proletarian bonapartist regimes that took power in Angola and Mozambique. And in that period Washington was still constrained from active intervention against revolutionary movements by the effects of its defeat in Vietnam. The invasion of Afghanistan, however, came when there was a shift in the position of US imperialism. Under Carter, and especially under Reagan, the US was striving to overcome the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ and reassert its power on the world arena.

The invasion was a golden opportunity, a propaganda gift, which could be used to denounce ‘Communist aggression’ and justify a new spurt of building up US military arsenals and strike-forces. Under Brezhnev the Russian leadership was prepared to ride out both the cost of the war and the international repercussions. But since 1979 the position of the bureaucracy has also changed. Under Gorbachev, it has been forced to grapple with the consequences of declining economic growth due to bureaucratic mismanagement of the nationalised economy.

Military spending, which has been consuming about 15% of the USSR’s national output, has become an enormous burden. The bureaucracy has to find the resources for the modernisation of industry, while trying to maintain the living standards of the working class. Thus Gorbachev is striving to reach an accommodation with US imperialism. He is desperate for agreements that will slow down the crippling escalation of arms spending. In the last few days, he has announced a 19% reduction in the USSR’s official defence budget (though the real budget is much higher). Half a million troops will be demobilised, and 10,000 tanks decommissioned. These cuts are aimed both at reassuring capitalist leaders and also influencing public opinion in the West to exert pressure on their governments for arms reductions.

In Gorbachev’s calculations, holding on to the position in Afghanistan is of secondary importance to the possibility of achieving agreements with the US superpower and its capitalist allies. However, his belief that it will be possible to achieve a lasting agreement with imperialism is an illusion. In spite of all the talks and Russian concessions so far, the US is still stepping up support to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. When the crisis in world capitalism intensifies, the fundamental social antagonism between imperialism and Stalinism will inevitably mean a return to openly hostile policies.

Afghanistan is not the only retreat on the part of the Russian bureaucracy, either. The Kremlin is exerting pressure to achieve an agreement with the US and South Africa over Namibia. It has withheld significant backing to the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, which is near to economic collapse. In South-East Asia the Russian leadership is pushing for the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia/Kampuchea.

A defeat for the bureaucracy

IN THE CASE of Afghanistan, however, the Russian bureaucracy is withdrawing without decisive success in consolidating the regime. In some areas, particularly the north, land reform has been successfully carried through. Sanitation and health have been improved, and the position of some sections of women improved enormously. Education has begun to tackle the overwhelming illiteracy of the Afghan population. But the advances are patchy, and only the support of quite a thin layer of society has been firmly secured.

The Russian bureaucracy intervened in the first place because of the clumsy bureaucratic methods of the Afghan regime. In areas where there were big estates, the land reforms received general support. In other areas, however, the situation was more complicated, with many different forms of land tenure, share-cropping, tribal pasture rights, and so on. The regime attempted to force the changes through without building mass support amongst the peasantry and tribespeople, and without the necessary material support to ensure the success of the reforms.

Afghan society has always been divided by tribal loyalties, and Kabul’s bonapartist methods aroused ferocious opposition in many areas. No government in Kabul has ever exercised more than a loose suzerainty over the whole country. Then the intervention of a foreign invader to prop up the new regime in Kabul provoked even more widespread opposition from the different national groupings and tribes.

The Russian bureaucracy has provided enormous economic and military support. They forced Najibullah to abandon the ‘Marxist’ label, in an attempt to broaden his support. But they have still not been able to consolidate a firm base for the regime. This failure has opened up fertile ground for imperialism to foment religious and nationalistic resistance.

The Russian withdrawal, under these circumstances, is a defeat for the bureaucracy. This has been admitted, implicitly, in recent statements by Gorbachev and foreign minister Shevardnadze. Rank-and-file Russian soldiers are leaving without any sense of ‘revolutionary achievement’.

But comparison between this defeat for the bureaucracy and the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam is entirely false. Despite the cost of the war, the 15,000 Russian dead and many more casualties, the bureaucracy is not being forced out by military defeat. Gorbachev and company have decided that, given their global political objectives, it is not worthwhile holding on to Afghanistan.

In Vietnam, moreover, the US faced a united national struggle, based on the social interests of the peasantry, particularly their demand for land. The rag-bag of religious and tribal groups which make up the ‘Afghan resistance’ are incapable of unifying themselves into a coherent national movement with common objectives. With money and arms from foreign patrons, they have been able to cripple the regime in many areas. They now threaten to plunge Afghanistan into a new and even bloodier phase of civil war. But they are incapable themselves of forming a new regime.

Will Najibullah’s regime survive? Its fate is clearly in the balance. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze are still pledging unwavering support. Yet in recent weeks the Kremlin’s diplomats have been negotiating intensively with mujaddehin leaders. They have been pushing the idea of a shura (assembly) representing all groups, including the ruling PDPA. In return for a new government including ‘good Muslims’ (present non-PDPA ministers) and one or two PDPA members, they have indicated they would have been prepared to abandon Najibullah, airlifting him and his cabinet out of the country to the villas already prepared for them in the USSR.

While some mujaheddin leaders are ready to accept ‘good Muslims’, however, none is prepared to accept PDPA participation. Thus the Kremlin has little choice but to stick with Najibullah. Pulling the rug from under him now would undoubtedly precipitate the regime’s total collapse. Najibullah, moreover, still has the support of those who have a direct stake in the regime, especially soldiers, policemen and state officials, whose necks will be on the block if the regime falls. Whatever their doubts, many Afghan soldiers will fight it out if the only alternative is bloody revenge at the hands of the mujaheddin.

There is little doubt, however, that Moscow has already begun to implement contingency plans in case Kabul falls. There are reports indicating that, even while withdrawing, the Russian forces are consolidating a fortified enclave - in which a truncated Najibullah regime could be defended - around the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif, close to the border with the Soviet Union.

A return to barbarism

MANY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS and their families have been moved there, together with a large concentration of Afghan soldiers. Russian arms and supplies have been concentrated there, and some Russian personnel may be staying in that area.

This is the region in which the land reform and other changes were most successful. Agriculture is relatively fertile, and the area has natural gas reserves. This is also where most of the recent industrial development has taken place. If Kabul falls, the Russian bureaucracy, if only to protect its crucial strategic interests in this region, would most likely support the continuation of the Najibullah regime in this enclave. In effect, this would mean the partition of Afghanistan. The zone in the north would be controlled by a proletarian bonapartist client of the Russian bureaucracy. The rest of the country could be divided between rival warlords, in turn the clients of the US, the Pakistani ruling class and the Iranian regime.

Moves from within the Afghan army’s officer corps to oust Najibullah are also possible. A new bonapartist government, repudiating the PDPA, might well be able to draw in some of the mujaheddin leaders. Much as they want to take Kabul, a frontal assault by divided guerrilla groups would lead to an horrendous massacre.

A military coup, with the support of sections of the officer corps, the professional strata, merchants and some of the mujaheddin leaders, might be able to establish a new regime in Kabul. The Russian bureaucracy has already canvassed the idea of a broader government. It cannot be ruled out that, provided their strategic interests on the Afghan/Soviet border were safeguarded, they would support a new bonapartist regime.

In such an unstable situation, with many unknown factors involved, it is impossible to predict the likely course of events with any certainty. But whatever happens, it now seems unavoidable that the revolutionary changes inaugurated in 1978/79 will be rolled back in a large area of Afghanistan. Responsibility for this setback lies with Stalinism, which has nothing in common with genuine Marxism or internationalism.

If the present regime is undermined, even in part of the country, social progress will be thrown back by many decades. Mujaheddin domination means a return to barbarism. In time, after a period of painful reaction, conditions will develop for a new movement to change society.

But the lesson of the last ten years is that a new movement must be based on a movement from below, mobilising the workers, peasants and tribal people of Afghanistan around a Marxist programme. The revolution in Afghanistan must be linked up, through an international perspective, with the struggle of the workers and peasants throughout Asia.

To ensure a revolution on healthy socialist lines, the Afghan revolution must also be linked to the programme of political revolution in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, to overthrow the bureaucracy and establish workers’ democracy.


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